02/05/2015 09:19 EST | Updated 04/07/2015 05:59 EDT

Three candidates for Manitoba premier face each other in first debate

WINNIPEG - Manitoba Premier Greg Selinger faced off for the first time with the two people trying to unseat him Thursday night, in a two-hour debate that was polite and filled with consensus.

Selinger was praised by his opponents, Theresa Oswald and Steve Ashton — two former cabinet ministers who are running in the party leadership race that has been forced upon Selinger.

Oswald, who helped launch the caucus revolt last November, said she agreed with Selinger's policies. But she said everything the NDP has worked for will be undone unless the party has a new, more popular leader for the next election in April 2016.

"What great good will come ... if we are forced into opposition?" she asked. "One year of (Opposition Leader) Brian Pallister will be too much, let alone four or eight or 12. We musn't even think of it."

The NDP plummeted in opinion polls after raising the sales tax in 2013. Oswald, who has served as minister of jobs and the economy, and four other senior ministers asked the premier to consider resigning in November. They stepped down from their portfolios after Selinger refused.

The crisis prompted the NDP to call a leadership race that will be decided March 8.

Thursday's debate focused on indigenous issues and was hosted by the Aboriginal Council of Winnipeg. The event was not widely promoted and only 30 people sat in a hall that can seat 200.

All three candidates promised to pressure the federal government to improve living conditions on reserves and to improve aboriginal education and health care. They laid the blame for third-world conditions on reserves at the feet of the federal government.

Oswald praised Selinger for trying to convince the federal government to boost funding and to call an inquiry into missing and murdered women. She said little will change unless there is a new government in Ottawa.

"I think there have been many, many efforts made by Premier Selinger and by Premier (Gary) Doer before him to ... hold the federal government's feet to the fire," she said.

"This particular federal Conservative government knows no shame when it comes to dealing with issues concerning aboriginal people in our country."

All three candidates promised to have more aboriginal issues in the school curriculum. Selinger said non-aboriginals have to learn more about the past.

"I believe the more we work and know each other ... the better we'll understand the history of colonization, the residential schools, the sixties scoop (of indigenous children by child welfare authorities)."

Ashton said he was not taught the truth about Louis Riel in school and only later learned about Riel's positive role in bringing Manitoba into Confederation.

The three candidates also agreed to a plea from a woman in the audience who is mourning the unsolved death of her niece. Susan Caribou said she was upset that authorities stopped looking for the body of Tanya Nepinak in 2012 after a five-day search of a landfill. Nepinak had been reported missing and is believed to have been killed in Winnipeg.

"I make events for missing and murdered (aboriginal women's) families ... and I don't see any leaders when I do these marches or events," Caribou said.

"I think we should have more of our leaders — the chiefs, the mayors, the chief of police — support the families of the missing and murdered, because we still don't have closure."

Caribou invited the candidates to a march planned for Feb. 14 and they promised to attend.